Basics of Britain
Is a DVD a necessity? A car a luxury? Are cigarettes an indulgence? Is the odd glass of wine part of a decent life?
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's (JRF) attempts to define the minimum income necessary for an "acceptable" living standard is bound to provoke argument. But they won't mind one bit.
For decades those organisations with an interest in people living at the margins have held on to the concept of 'poverty' - absolute poverty, relative poverty, the poverty line.
But the word inevitably prompts a chorus of derision, because the poverty of Darfur looks nothing like the poverty here. How can you compare someone with obesity and a plasma screen to someone with malnutrition and no shoes?
So JRF have looked at it another way: what do we think is acceptable as a minimum standard of living in 21st Century Britain?
Now, this is a cultural and social question rather than a matter of survival. And as such, it forces us to think quite hard about the way we live.
A minimum standard of living involves a degree of socialisation and cultural life. Never being able to go out or buy yourself a chocolate bar is "unacceptable" in a rich country like ours. We demand the wherewithal to have a diet that is nutritious, a home that is warm and the choices to participate in wider society.
To assess what a minimum income standard might look like, 11 panels of "ordinary people" from different social groups - pensioners, single mums, families with children - were asked to look at everything that a household would need. From a bath to broccoli. Pillowcases to porridge. From night clothes to a night out. Where would they draw the line between luxury and necessity?
Well, the answers make intriguing reading (pdf,0.24MB).
In 2008, home access to the internet is a "luxury" for all except families with secondary school-age children. Free surfing at the library is enough for the rest.
But I wonder how long that will remain the case? At what point will modern life require almost permanent access to the web? Perhaps, for some, we are there already.
There are some interesting anomalies in the lists - almost moral judgments. Cigarettes are a luxury. But all the groups decided that alcohol was an essential treat. The pensioners' group decided that a weekly can of stout was vital.
A single mum is entitled to a bottle of wine and a couple of cans of beer each week. She can indulge on a Kit Kat once every nine weeks and a Twix once every three-and-a-half. There is also £15 a week for social activities.
The panel concluded that a couple with two kids should be able to spend a minimum of £360 on Christmas and £450 on birthdays.
JRF told the panels "to exclude items that may be regarded as 'aspirational'
- it is about fulfilling needs and not wants". So a single adult needs a pair of trainers, but the budget is £20 a year. They will have to save up a long time to get a pair of the latest designer running shoes.
This is a fascinating distinction. We need "stuff", the panels agree: DVD, Freeview, CD player and our telly. But we don't need the "right stuff".
The JRF hopes that this new measure will become an international standard for developed nations, allowing the debate to move on from dreary arguments about whether you can be poor if you smoke.
But the panels' deliberations also reveal something telling about the way we live today. In trying to identify the requirements for social participation, the research has painted a detailed picture of contemporary life. From Marmite to muesli, pull-up nappies to reduced-fat spread. This is about the basics of Britain.